[Taxacom] On the state of systematics and taxonomy in the UK

Mark Costello markcost at gmail.com
Mon Sep 22 06:02:52 CDT 2008

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on "Systematics
and Taxonomy" is now available at: 
and as a pdf at

Systematic biology is at the heart of our understanding of the natural
In this time of climate change, understanding the connection between the
natural world and human well-being-understanding the value and dynamic of
"ecosystem services"-has a vital importance more widely recognised than ever
before. "Ecosystem services" is a concept which has developed an importance
in recent years to the point where it now sets the context of the current
debate on environment sustainability. Simply defined, ecosystem services are
"the benefits we derive from natural ecosystems".

This is our third inquiry into systematics and taxonomy. We reported in
1992, under the chairmanship of Lord Dainton, with a follow-up inquiry in
2001-02 under the chairmanship of Baroness Walmsley. We chose to embark on
this inquiry now because of the environmental imperatives increasingly
manifest in our daily lives. We have asked two questions in particular:
whether systematic biology in the UK is in a fit state to generate the
essential taxonomic information required to understand ecosystem services
and whether the UK has the skills available to understand and predict the
impact of climate change on biodiversity.

We have concluded that the state of systematics and taxonomy in the UK, both
in terms of the professional taxonomic community and volunteers, is
unsatisfactory-in some areas, such as mycology, to the point of crisis-and
that more needs to be done to ensure the future health of the discipline. We
propose, for example, that there should be more effective and regular
dialogue between the users and producers of taxonomy on the priorities for
developing UK systematic biology, and we emphasise the importance of
stimulating recruitment and also of taking steps to fire the imagination of
school children by creative incorporation of environmental and biodiversity
issues into school curricula.

The study of systematic biology, in common with other areas of science, has
been transformed by technological innovation. Of particular importance are
the development of molecular taxonomy and the potential of web-based
taxonomy. We have no doubt that the benefits to be reaped from technological
innovation are enormous. We are aware however that they need to be harnessed
with discrimination and we call on the Research Councils and the taxonomic
institutions to respond to this challenge.

Although we received clear evidence from the taxonomic community of a
widespread concern about the state of the discipline, that concern appears
to be largely unheard by the Government and by the Research Councils. We
find this worrying. We believe that part of the problem is the fragmentation
within Government of responsibility for systematic biology. We therefore
recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills be
designated as the lead department and that that department should exercise
the leadership without which we fear that the downward slide of UK taxonomy
is set to continue. 

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